3/08/2012

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills: February 1969

On the evening of Friday, February 7, 1969, I happened to be sitting in the audience at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, California, where I witnessed a stunning performance by Judy Collins, the American singer and songwriter, who at that particular time was reaching the first height of her enduring fame. Standing behind Judy Collins on the stage, to her left, playing careful licks on an electric guitar and choosing to stay out of the main spotlight, was Stephen Stills, a well-known musician who was destined to become a superstar himself before the year was over.

Judy Collins had been formally trained as a pianist during her childhood, performing the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in public at the age of thirteen, but she later turned her interest toward playing the guitar and singing. When folk music was being widely heard at the beginning of the 1960s, she began to appear in nightclubs in Greenwich Village, in New York City, and was signed to Elektra Records. Her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, was released in 1961. In addition to offering sensitive interpretations of songs written by Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Jacques Brel, Donovan, and Randy Newman, she also wrote songs herself ("Since You Asked," "Sky Fell," "Albatross," "My Father"), and within several years she gained a sterling reputation as a vocalist of undoubted talent and unfailing taste.

Stephen Stills, an American musician with Southern roots, had performed with The Au Go Go Singers and The Company in the early 1960s, and several years later gained further renown as a key member of Buffalo Springfield, a band that also included Neil Young and Richie Furay. He was highly skilled as a singer, a guitarist, a keyboardist, and a songwriter, and was the composer of "For What It's Worth," a song (inspired by an outbreak of trouble between young people and local authorities on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood) that earned regular airplay for Buffalo Springfield when it was released as a single in 1967. His musicianship was marked by a fiery combination of fluid ability and strong feeling. When Buffalo Springfield came to an end in 1968, he went in search of fresh opportunities and fell into a difficult romance with Judy Collins.

Onstage at the Berkeley Community Theatre in 1969, Judy Collins sang in a superlative manner that tunefully revealed the elements of grace and beauty within each song. She opened with a lively rendering of "Hello, Hooray," from her latest album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, and easily succeeded in keeping the audience spellbound throughout the course of her performance. Although I was quite familiar with the sound of her recordings, I was surprised by the strength and richness of her voice as it filled my ears. When she paused between songs for a few minutes, to announce the names of the musicians who were supporting her, she referred to Stephen Stills by saying, "Stephen is going into the studio tomorrow, to work on a new album with David Crosby and Graham Nash."

Stephen Stills, it seemed, had entered into a partnership with David Crosby, a former member of The Byrds ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Eight Miles High," "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star"), and Graham Nash, a former member of The Hollies ("Look Through Any Window," "Bus Stop," "Stop Stop Stop," "On a Carousel," "Carrie Anne"), and was now in the process of creating new music with them. It was an impressive union that clearly held favorable potential. David Crosby, a native of California and an outspoken hipster, had already proven himself to be boldly gifted as a musician and a songwriter, and Graham Nash, who hailed from Salford, England, possessed a vocal style that was unusually distinctive.

Later that same year, when the first album by the threesome was released on Atlantic Records, Stephen Stills and his two cohorts swiftly rose to the uppermost region of rock'n'roll. Although he and Judy Collins had started to drift apart since her performance in Berkeley, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," the leading track on the album, was a gloriously heartfelt expression of his love for her. Whenever I listen to that track, with its joyous flow of breathtaking harmonies, I always remember seeing Judy Collins and Stephen Stills together on that evening in 1969, and I find myself reflecting on the unaccountable way in which the deepest experiences of life can be marvelously transformed into extraordinary music.